It’s tempting to characterize Tom Thomas ’76 as a computer technology savant. He entered the field before it was even called “computer technology”—it was data processing—and at a time when companies were just starting to figure out how to use computers to solve complex problems, rather than to do just calculations.
“I was fortunate enough to be ahead of it,” he said. “I had a knack for it, and I had mentors.” Eventually he held technology leadership positions at 3Com, Palm, Kraft and Sara Lee Corporation, and he was the first Chief Information Officer for Dell.
"It’s all about the data and what you do with it."
But Thomas calls himself something else: a businessman. “Even though I had a lot of fun with technology, at the end of the day, it was about understanding the economics of business,” he said. “A lot of people think about technology as a standalone area, but really it’s an enabler to improve business.”
That’s the message he wants to get across to students as Executive-in-Residence in Bellarmine University’s W. Fielding Rubel School of Business
. “The more foundation the students have in technology, the better," he said. "But as I always say [to employees], ‘Business first, technology second, and if you get confused, let’s talk about it.’ ”
Dr. Natasha Munshi, dean of the Rubel School, said the idea for the Executive in Residence initiative, which is exclusive to Bellarmine’s Executive MBA (EMBA) program, came from a conversation she had with Thomas about taking a real-world, case-study approach. “As Tom was a co-partner in the initiative, he was very open to the idea of serving as the inaugural Executive in Residence,” she said. For now, his term is open-ended.
Thomas, whose family has roots in Marion County, Ky., and who grew up in Louisville, graduated from Bellarmine with an undergraduate degree in Commerce. Many of his evening classes were taught by businesspeople who worked “real jobs in the real business world” during the day. The importance of that exposure has motivated his continued involvement with Bellarmine; he has been a trustee for 20 years and was a past chair. “I’m a huge fan of Bellarmine,” he said. “The education and experiences I had at Bellarmine were fundamental to everything I’ve done.”
A year into Bellarmine’s MBA program
, he accepted a job out of state and never moved back to Kentucky, spending years in Silicon Valley creating software technologies to improve online business and customer service.
The ideas for that software came from working to really understand a business, then exploring where efficiency and profitability could be improved, he said. At Kraft, he spent his first six months in the field, first as a sales representative and then as a delivery driver. “You have these ‘gotcha moments’ when you’re out there. Like you’re unloading a truck, and the products you need are in the front; now you have to move all those boxes to get to the ketchup. We built a software program to line up the delivery sequence with the loading sequence.”
During his tenure at Sara Lee, he created a sales force automation distribution and marketing system that was later developed into a Harvard Business School case study. Thomas presented a mini-case study developed from his work at Kraft at Bellarmine on Dec. 5 to students completing the EMBA program.
Thomas and his wife, Sandra, now live in St. Petersburg, Fla. He is chair of the board of Iteris Inc., a California-based company that provides software and consulting services for “smart mobility infrastructure management.” That includes cameras, sensors and other devices placed at intersections and elsewhere to gather data on traffic patterns, weather conditions and more. “We sell those to Departments of Transportation throughout the world,” he said. “And you know the local weather reports you hear on Sirius and iHeart Radio? That’s coming from us. They buy that data.”
"Technology should be part of the fundamental and core curriculum for every student coming in. It’s a fundamental part of our lives.”
He also is a managing partner at T2 Partners, a private company that invests in promising businesses. A recent success was Accurate Group in Cleveland, Ohio, which uses technology to reduce the time it takes to get a loan or second mortgage on homes appraised for less than $500,000; because an onsite adjustor is not required for such homes, everything can be done online.
Thomas has won numerous industry and technology awards, including Ernst & Young Entrepreneur 2001 while at Haht Commerce and the ComputerWorld Smithsonian Award while at 3Com, and has served on more than 20 corporate and industry advisory boards. In 2011, he was named Bellarmine University’s Alumnus of the Year, and in 2014 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.
He is a longtime proponent of Bellarmine providing technology training as part of every degree program.
“It should be part of the fundamental and core curriculum for every student coming in. It’s a fundamental part of our lives,” he said. “Every one of our programs, and most everything we do today in the world, requires some understanding of technology. We have an opportunity to be relevant here, and to be part of a broader conversation about the marriage of business and technology and how to prepare our students for that world they are going to be living in.
“Not everyone who succeeds in technology is a rocket scientist. I wasn’t! But they are people who want to understand technology and apply those skills to their careers. It’s all about the data and what you do with it.”